International Rescue Committee relief teams are working virtually nonstop in both Macedonia and Albania to assist Kosovar refugees who flooded into those Balkan countries. As of today, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that some 304,000 Kosovars have found sanctuary in Albania and another 122,000 had crossed into Macedonia. Tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of displaced people are still inside Kosovo. But Serbian forces have now apparently sealed their borders with Albania and Macedonia. Another 59,000 Kosovars are thought to be in Montenegro and Bosnia.
Having entered a region of Albania that is mountainous and isolated, and where access is extremely limited, the refugees are currently being transported to more populous areas, but the process takes time. John Fawcett, a veteran of past humanitarian crises in Iraq, Bosnia and elsewhere, was appointed emergency coordinator for Albania and arrived in Tirana last week to take charge of the IRC’s expanded programs.
IRC’s initial relief efforts focus on providing shelter, clean water, sanitation and mobile medical clinics, both in the entry area -- where we’re working with a local aid organization -- and in central Albania, where refugees are being relocated. The IRC team, based in Tirana, now totals some 70 international and local employees.
The IRC Macedonia team, led by Bob Turner, has worked virtually around the clock rushing aid and supplies to refugees who had been stuck in the international buffer zone between Macedonia and Kosovo. After the buffer zone was cleared on April 7, the IRC began focusing its efforts exclusively on the growing number of refugee centers inside Macedonia, where we had already been providing water and sanitation facilities and medical assistance.
This week, the IRC sent seven additional specialists to aid the Macedonian team, including experts in water and sanitation, logistics, and shelter, as well as an additional four physicians, who joined the five already on hand. Earlier this week, the IRC physicians had reported treating numerous cases of exposure, exhaustion, dehydration, pneumonia and diarrhea. The international staff in Macedonia now has about 30 members.
The teams in both Albania and Macedonia also have access to IRC program specialists who have expertise in assisting children affected by armed convex, in family reunification, in providing reproductive health services in refugee crises and in delivering preventive health care.
The IRC has been assisting refugees in the former Yugoslavia since 1991, with programs in Bosnia, Croatia, and Serbia. Prior to the NATO bombing, the IRC had one of the largest relief operations in Kosovo. We have also had a substantial presence in Albania since 30,000 Kosovar refugees fled there last fall. When the NATO air strikes were imminent, our staff in Kosovo evacuated to Macedonia and immediately began supporting the refugees. Some of these staff members have been sent to augment the team in Albania.